Film Review – The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mean son of a gun. He runs his 1925 Montana ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) like a dictator. Where George is a kinder, gentler soul, Phil controls things with a cruel iron fist. With pursed lips adorning a scowling face, Phil exudes intimidation and awe amongst his acolytes. Anyone and everyone can be subject to his verbal abuse – he is even prone to calling George “Fatso.” He bullies and taunts others with the glee of a sadist, and on more than one occasion exhibits homophobic tendencies. Suffice to say: when you’re around Phil it’s best to tread carefully, and even then you may not be able to escape his wrath.
While watching The Power of the Dog (2021), I began to wonder why I should be interested in following such a nasty character. But as we move further into the narrative, Phil’s layers start to peel away, revealing a person suffering under pain, loss, and the inability to truly be himself. Writer/director Jane Campion adapts Thomas Savage’s novel with a keen focus on details. She crafts the central character not with broad strokes but with precision and finesse. We see it in the way he carries himself, how he smokes a cigarette, ties a rope, handles a saddle, etc. It’s these little moments that build up an entire history of Phil – digging beneath the gruff exterior to find the vulnerability he tries so desperately to conceal.
This revelation begins when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) a widow with an effeminate, college-age son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In an early scene, we see the extent of Phil’s cruelty, teasing Peter for crafting paper into flowers. When George brings Rose to the ranch to live, Phil’s meanness intensifies. He calls Peter a “Nancy” for his thin frame and the unmasculine way he carries himself. Phil calls Rose a “schemer,” and harshly torments her when she is unable to play a tune on the piano. But the toxicity Phil spews only hides the insecurities he has for himself. He is a person in constant inner conflict, to the point that he rejects his ivy league education and privileged upbringing. He bathes in a nearby lake while simultaneously covering himself in mud. Metaphorically, Phil sees himself as dirty, wanting to wash himself of the past even though he knows he could never escape it.
The acting all around is excellent. Jesse Plemons inhabits George as a good natured but simple-minded brother. He loves Rose and Phil equally but is unable to mend the disconnect between them. Kirsten Dunst plays Rose as a person who wants to make a good impression, but whose apprehension and angst nearly drives her up the wall. As Phil’s harassment builds, so does her desperation for escape. It’s a showy performance, but Dunst doesn’t allow it to go over the top – every moment feels appropriate. And Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter is an intelligent and observant young man – not nearly as helpless or weak as Phil may have first surmised. In a way, Peter senses the secrets Phil bottles in, and his interactions with him doesn’t suggest fear so much as empathy.
Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better. He balances both the tough and soft side of Phil with equal effectiveness. The performance is moving in the way it is so understated. He tells us everything we need to know without having to explicitly say it. Notice the way he speaks highly of his long dead friend and mentor, Bronco Henry – even creating a small shrine in his memory. Or in the way he walks around the ranch, always with purpose, only stopping to admire the rolling hills that surround the property. There is specific focus put on Cumberbatch’s hands, in how he handles rope or skins game or plays his banjo. All these pieces come together to create a full view of who Phil is, and Cumberbatch presents them in a finely tuned delivery.
Just like she did in The Piano (1993) Campion utilizes the landscape to create a subtle dreamlike quality. Although the setting is in Montana, the film was shot in her native New Zealand, and that adds an air of otherworldliness. The art direction and set design surrounds the ranch with hills and mountains. When fall and winter comes, the entire area is covered in a light snow, amplifying the sense of isolation. Ari Wegner’s cinematography captures the dark rock formations scattering into the horizon. In doors, the camera creeps around corners and down hallways, creating a mild by resonating dread. Watch how the frame slowly zooms in on Rose playing the piano, with Phil taunting her from another room. The stop and go of the visuals create a suspenseful, eerie style. Jonny Greenwood continues his streak of excellent scores, this time going for moody, somber rhythms that complement the story instead of being a distraction. In tone and style, the film plays a lot like There Will Be Blood (2007) in how mood and atmosphere reflect the mindset of the characters.
The tragedy of The Power of the Dog lies in how characters must suppress their inner selves from the outside world. Just like the protagonist of Moonlight (2016), Phil has warped his view of what it means to be a man, what it means to open himself to others, and to embrace who he really is. He hides behind a façade of masculinity, and it eats away at his very soul. His cruel nature masks what he really desires, and the possibility that it may never come to be. It’s one thing to find companionship and lose it, it’s another thing to never have had it to begin with. We discover that Phil Burbank isn’t running from his past, but longs for the chance to go back to it.